It's 1972. Roberta Flack is at the top of the charts and bell bottoms are in style. Soul brothers carefully shape their afros, while ads urge men to not be a stiff and get the dry look. Cars are big and use a ton of gas but who cares? It's not like we're gonna run out.
Derek Strange, just a few years after leaving the metro D.C. police, has gone on his own as a private investigator and he dreams of buying a neon sign for his office, the kind with a magnifying glass in the design. When a young woman hires him to recover a missing ring, the investigation uncovers some unlikely leads. Strange crosses paths with his old partner on the force, Frank Vaughn, and they inevitably team up to stop a ruthless killer known as Red Fury who's popping dudes all over town.
That's what it is in What It Was, the fifth Derek Strange book by George Pelecanos, but the first in the series I've read. I can already tell that Pelecanos is well on his way to becoming one of my favorites. Like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, Pelecanos has a mastery of casual language, the simplicity of which belies its ability to express. It's not laconic, clipped prose. It's just slick and easy and you can't help but get caught up in the flow.
Pelecanos' characterizations are also great. I have to admit that the name "Derek Strange" had me conjure up images of some sort of paranormal investigator or something, but Strange isn't strange at all. He's a young (in 1972) black man trying to get established as a private investigator after quitting the police force. He's got a girlfriend he loves, though he admits that his wandering eye is a weakness. He loves his mom and brings her take-out from their favorite diner when he visits. All in all, Strange is a cool, confident man, but working hard to grow out of youth and he's still got a lot to learn along the way.
Frank Vaughn is also an interesting guy. An older white man with a lot of time on the police force, Vaughn isn't exactly racist, but he's a "product of his time," and though he really tries to open up to the changing times it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. He's good guy at heart, but he's also an old-school cop, not unwilling to get rough or bend the rules to get justice.
In the hands of lesser authors, these characters might be somewhat cliché, but Pelecanos carries this off adeptly. Likewise, the setting and time period could easily have come off as kitschy, or maybe like a Tarantino-esque homage to blaxpolitation films and funk hits, but Pelecanos' early-'70s D.C. rings true, capturing well the racial tension of the time though Strange and Vaughn's unlikely friendship.
The verdict: ★★★★✩ (4/5 stars) What It Was is really a great crime book. I might almost go as far as to give it 4.5/5 stars, but I'm trying to be discerning in my ratings these days and reign in my enthusiasm. But it could easily have received the additional 1/2 star. I'd heard of Pelecanos before and I understand he writes for the show The Wire, but I've never seen it (I'm terribly behind the times). Just judging by what I've read in What It Was, Pelecanos is going to be my next favorite author. He's just awesome.